Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight


‘Warlight’ was the dim light that helped emergency traffic navigate London’s streets during the blackouts of World War II. Most of this book seems to be dimly lit. It is on the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize (the shortlist will be announced on 20th September).


With the book’s opening sentence, the reader is thrust into post World War II sinister murkiness: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ The two children, 14 year-old Nathaniel (the main narrator of the story) and his 16 year-old sister Rachel, understand that their parents are travelling to Singapore for a year for the father’s work. He boards a plane … and they never see him again. The mother will follow shortly – she makes a show of packing her steamer trunk.


The children are left in the care of a rather scruffy man and his associates. They nick-name their main minder ‘the Moth’ – I assumed that he must hover around, but Nathaniel says he was ‘moth-like in his shy movements’. An ex-boxer, ‘the Darter’ becomes a significant second father figure for Nathaniel, indulging in clandestine activities such as late night smugglings of racing grey-hounds down shadowy waterways in a mussel boat. Rachel is taken along on many of these activities, but she is bereft and never forgives her mother for abandoning her.

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a disused Anderson Shelter, sometimes used by ‘the Darter’ to hide greyhounds

Then the children discover their mother’s steamer trunk. She didn’t take it. She didn’t go. But where is she? Some things are gradually revealed. The mother’s code name, associated with espionage, is Viola. We follow Nathaniel through his teenage life – abandoning school, falling in love, working in a restaurant, and then working for ‘the Darter’.  But pulsing away beneath all of this, like the murky canals and back lanes he traverses, are questions about his mother.


There is an attempted kidnapping. A turning-point. Nathaniel is sent abroad to school. Then suddenly Nathaniel is in his late 20s and working in intelligence – mainly so that he can find out more about his mother. And suddenly there is light when we find ourselves at the mother’s country house called White Paint – there are bees, there is thatching, it is all seemingly wholesome and English. But no. The mother, the spy, is shot in her summerhouse. There is a funeral. Nathaniel sees a lone man there, with the evocative name of Marsh Felon. He loved her. More about the mother’s background is unearthed. When Nathaniel ultimately catches up with ‘the Darter’ (they were separated at the time of the attempted kidnapping) he discovers something that brings a heart-wrenching twist to the end of the story.

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Michael Ondaatje

This book was a page-turner for me – and yet I left it slightly dissatisfied. I was an observer. I couldn’t get inside or even feel some small degree of empathy for any of the characters – not even the poor abandoned Rachel. Nathaniel (as narrator) takes us into his past, but he is armed with his adult knowledge and experience – we do not feel anything quite as the 14 year-old did. As one reviewer comments: ‘You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a re-witnessing.’

Maybe we can be no more than witnesses to that distant, dimly-lit time. In many ways, reading the book was rather like watching a movie of the 1940s – it was definitely in black and white.

There is a lot to commend in this book and it will be interesting to see what happens on 20th September.

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In Camus’s The Outsider, a nameless Arab is killed on a beach in Algeria. He is killed by Meursault, a man who seems to be totally lacking emotion. The first words of the novel, narrated by Meursault are: ‘Mother (or Maman – translated from French) died today.’ Stark and devoid of grief. Much later in the book, Meursault happens to be walking on a hot beach, holding a gun.


He sees the Arab man and kills him. My sense was that it was just because the man happened to be there and Meursault happened to be holding a gun – some say it was because the sun was in his eyes. There is no apparent motive. Callous indifference to Arab life? It was 1942, a time of resistance to the French rule that would continue until 1962.


Algerian money, 1942

It seemed to me that the killing was utterly cold-blooded, and in this way, Meursault is absolutely true to himself. He is put on trial and the significant evidence is that he is different – much is made of the fact that he showed no grief at his mother’s funeral. Camus said: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death. I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.’ The Outsider was first published in 1942.


Albert Camus

Some 70 years later, Kamel Daoud wrote The Meursault Investigation. It is from the viewpoint of Harun, the younger brother of the Arab who was killed on the beach in Camus’s novel. The Arab, who is nameless in Camus’s book is given a name: Musa. And the opening sentence is: ‘Mama is still alive today’: a kind of helix, echoing Camus’s opening. Indeed, much of the book describes the mother’s desire to seek revenge even 20 years after her oldest son has been killed.


Kamel Daoud

Harun was only seven when his brother was killed. The body was washed away, so there could be no funeral. Over 20 years (the book is set in 1962), the killing has dominated Harun’s life. He is now a drunk – his story is narrated from a bar, he is lost and a stranger in his own country – indeed, the implication is that Algeria has lost itself: Harun wants to ‘bellow’ his ‘impieties’. For him, God is a question not an answer. The choices of nationalism or religion are meaningless.

Harun ultimately enacts his revenge by killing a French settler just after the cease-fire in the War of Independence. Had he killed the man before the cease-fire, he would have been a hero. He certainly doesn’t seek notoriety. After murdering the Frenchman, Harun is taken by soldiers and questioned, but he isn’t questioned about the murder. Instead, he is interrogated as to why he never joined the fighting for the resistance. Harun feels cheated when he is set free with no punishment for the murder.


According to Wikipedia: On December 16, 2014, a death threat against Daoud was issued from a Facebook page that is now locked. Daoud was labelled an apostate, ‘an enemy of religion’. There was a call for Daoud’s execution, on the grounds that he is leading a ‘war against God and the prophet’. Daoud filed a complaint for incitement with the ministry of religious affairs. Various individuals and groups also signed petitions and published open letters in support of Daoud. Defending himself against the charge of blasphemy in a TV interview, Daoud said: ‘It was a fictional character in the novel who said these things, not me. If we judge people on the basis of characters in their books, we will be facing dark times in Algeria.’





This latest novel by Julian Barnes was a slight disappointment compared to the grippingly compelling The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker) which, at the time, I described as an account of ‘lurching regret’. Like The Sense of an Ending, The Only Story is concerned with things that can’t be undone and consequences of decisions made in one’s youth. In this case it is the consequence of the person Paul fell in love with at nineteen – that first love that one will never forget. The book examines love. Can one analyse love? Probably not. Paul, the protagonist whom we first meet as a surprisingly confident 19-year-old, keeps a collection of other people’s definitions of love. But his first love (not his first sexual experience) is so overwhelming that it takes over every aspect of his life (as it can). One weakness, I thought, perhaps the only one, was that 19-year-old Paul in 1960s middle class England has an extraordinary amount of assurance for a callow youth. He falls in love with a 48-year-old married woman, and this is what takes over the rest of his life.


Paul walks jauntily into Susan (his lover’s) home, through the front entrance. One time, for fun, he scales the front wall up to her bedroom window. He and, sometimes, his friends, eat and even stay overnight at Susan’s home, which she shares with her husband. There seems to be an element of immature pride in Paul’s conquest of a middle-aged woman: look what I’ve done! But his love for Susan is genuine and he knows that she will always be a part of his life. They do ultimately run away together (from ‘the Village’ to London) but it is not a case of unassailable bliss.

Susan becomes an alcoholic and Barnes has depicted superbly the frustrating stonewall of alcoholism where the addicted person cannot be torn away from the constant need to imbibe more and more, and the hellish spectre of how they are changed. One time, before they had run away together, Paul and Susan are sitting on a floral covered settee, Susan wearing a floral dress that blends with the fabric of the settee covering as though she has partly faded into it. She jokes about it at the time, but that’s what seems to happen: she becomes consumed. There are questions of love and duty. Paul remains living with Susan for as long as he can, but ultimately escapes physically, if not mentally from the woman he loves . . .  has loved? ‘He couldn’t save her, and so he had to save himself.’


People might say that Paul’s life is ruined by his years of devotion to Susan. He has a number of relationships but never marries or has children and his work is never central to his life.  He does not seem to resent this, or regret the considerable amount of his life devoted to Susan.   There was anger,  not directed at Susan, but at ‘whatever it was that had obliterated her’. In many ways he seems contented with his ordinary middle class single man’s life, to that extent he did ‘save himself’. As I neared the end of the book, I predicted that it would end with Susan’s death, and it almost does. The last pages describe Susan very close to death, when Paul visits her in an institution for the insane. He sits by her side, but she is too far gone to acknowledge that he is there. Paul considers the actions that one might expect in this situation: say good bye, kiss her … But no. It is back to the ordinary world: ‘On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.’ We are saved from any predictable cliche.

Yet, Susan is a presence throughout what we see of Paul’s life. After Susan has succumbed to alcohol and then a form of dementia and when Paul is leading a kind of average, uneventful life, thoughts of Susan are interspersed – it’s not just that things sometimes remind Paul of Susan, she seems to be a presence, hovering over his entire life. And in this way, Love is the only story.


Brilliant writing.  Barnes deftly changes from first, to second to third person, gradually distancing the reader from the immediate youthful experience of love (first person) to the reflective stance of the older Paul (third person).

Whereas A Sense of an Ending ends with a kind of searing regret,  one feels that Paul never regrets his love for Susan.



Some years ago I read Virginia Duigan’s novel The Biographer, which raises issues about the extent to which it is ethical to reveal personal details in a biography – the tantalising problem that these are often the most fascinating aspects of a person’s life: how far can you go? Richard Flanagan’s First Person demonstrates another, not unrelated, matter: if you ghost-write someone’s autobiography, to what extent might you be taken over by the essence of that person?


First Person is partly memoir, partly autobiography. Some years ago Flanagan did ghost-write the autobiography of conman John Friedrich – and at the time his wife was expecting twins. In the book, a young as yet unsuccessful writer desperately needs money. He has little choice but to accept a job ghost-writing the autobiography of conman Siegfried Heidl, who is about to be jailed for his crimes. Heidl also needs the money he will get from the book but he won’t open up to the young writer, Kif Kehlmann – not one bit. Early on Heidl says, ‘I have been missing since I was born’. For much of the story, Kehlmann and Heidl are confined together in an office of a publishing house in Port Melbourne. Part of the contract is that they must go to work there every day. Kehlmann is utterly frustrated by his inability to get anything of Heidl’s story and Heidl spends most of the time in avoidance behaviour or going out to what are probably fake meetings and lunches. At weekends Kehlmann goes home to his heavily pregnant wife and 3 year-old daughter in Tasmania and is confronted by the pressing need for money.


John Friedrich

One of the things that Flanagan does well in this book is to set the brutality of men’s relationships against the harshness of the Australian bush. There is a friend, Ray, who might have provided support to Kif but he is really just a means of demonstrating the bleakness of an alcohol-fuelled mateship. To me, Ray was a rather shallow almost unbelievable character. In backstory we learn that once Kif and Ray tried to cross Bass Strait in a dinghy with the not surprising outcome that they were both almost killed.


Richard Flanagan

The family in Tasmania is probably intended to be a kind of back-drop – the reason for the desperate need for money. Yet, that’s what kept me reading. Again, not surprisingly, the marriage fails, but Kef has a warmth, tenderness and respect for Suzy: ‘later in the night [he] spooned into Suzy’s back’. For me, the drama was: she’s 8 months pregnant with twins, with threatening pre-eclampsia, they’ve been given a tour of the neonatal intensive care nursery – oh, hell, he’s not going to be there when she goes into labour! And he’s not. He’s not in Melbourne, but home in Tasmania, out drinking after an argument with Suzy. She goes through an horrific labour. Everyone survives. Suzy seems too tolerant, too earth-motherish.

This is all a part of Kef’s transformation into the subject of the autobiography. He becomes more and more like Heidl – lacking principles and morality, rather than the impoverished but genuine writer he might have been. Much later — after Heidl’s death — Kef becomes director of Zero Box Entertainment – far away from ‘shitty’ Tasmania. He travels overseas, has lots of women … There is no going back to the simple home-spun life of a Tasmanian writer.

Heidl dies. It would spoil the story for those who haven’t read it to say how and by whose hand. This is the drama of the book and this is where there is some superb writing; Kef is infused with the harsh bleakness of the bush. Kef and Heidl are both in the bush, near Heidl’s home:

‘And then I was standing above him … Small black ants crisscrossed the red-flecked gruel near his ear… Overhead a black jay was circling.

‘And that’s the worst part.

‘His eyes were moving, following the bird above.

‘He was alive.’


Another stunning piece of drama takes place after Heidl’s death. He has sent the editor some photographs – slides to illustrate the book. Kef and the editor look through the slides together – they are unexceptional – we hear the click of the slide projector. There is blankness, the ‘show’ must have finished, but no, the slide screen ‘seemed to exist only to have shown us this one image’: a flayed human corpse hanging from a tree.


(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot


At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

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Siegfriend Sassoon’s ‘Sherston Triology’ takes us into the trenches of World War I – particularly France, and a brief experience as an officer in Egypt. It is ‘fictionalised autobiography’ – a three volume account of the life of George Sherston over the war years. These volumes are: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (the time leading up to the war when Sassoon was a well-to-do young man, fond of fox-hunting, golf and cricket), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Sassoon’s experiences as an officer in the trench warfare of France, his wounding and convalescence, during which time he comes to question the continuation of the war), and Sherston’s Progress (the outcomes of his fortuitous meeting with neurologist and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers – described elsewhere in reviews of Pat Barker’s books and the effect of this influence).

Sassoon with David Cuthbert Thomas great friend who was killed

Sassoon with his great friend Robert Hanmer

It is believed that the Complete Memoirs of George Sherston accurately outlines the life of Siegfried Sassoon, who was decorated (MC) for bravery on the Western Front. Sassoon said that his alter-ego, George Sherston, personified only about one-fifth of his personality. One large part that is omitted is Sassoon’s homosexuality – understandable as it was illegal in Britain at the time the volumes were published. George Sherston certainly doesn’t make passes at any young ladies and when he is on leave he indulges in sports or solitary pursuits. Sassoon did marry after the war (1933) but the marriage broke down in 1945. There was one son, George, whom Sassoon adored.

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Through George Sherston we confront the realities of ‘The Great War’ with the eyes of an officer and a gentleman. There are descriptions of the mud, the long marches and aching feet, the horror of dead bodies – particularly those with whom one was joking a matter of hours earlier. But there is a lot from the officers’ mess; golfing and imbibing vast quantities of the best whisky, leave and rehabilitation on the estate of Lord and Lady Asterisk. And like all good officers, Sherston has a servant.

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Sherston is injured and convalesces in England. He comes to see the rift between political machinations and the on-going persistence of insisting that the military continue to fight until there is a victor. In a tremendous act of bravery, Sherston / Sassoon wrote a Statement, which was read to the British House of Commons on July 30th 1917 and published in the London Times the next day:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

He was saved from court-martial by the actions of his friend Robert Graves who convinced authorities that Sassoon was suffering from ‘shell-shock’. He was hospitalised at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh and there was a patient of W.H.R. Rivers who seemed to understand his position and indeed helped young Sherston to see his situation from a broader perspective. Sherston willingly returned to active service realising the ironic twist that one could only escape from the war by being in it, thus attempting to avoid his Statement being dismissed as the rantings of a ‘shell-shock victim’. The final words of the book are: ‘it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us’.

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I came across this book at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Festival (see reviews on    ). British writer Alan Hollinghurst was a guest. I had heard of him: The Swimming Pool Library came out in the 1980s when there was heightened interest in gay culture because of the AIDS ‘epidemic’, then, in 2004, he won the Man Booker prize with The Line of Beauty. But I hadn’t read these books. After hearing Hollinghurst speak, I was keen to read The Sparsholt Affair.


Alan Hollinghurst

The book is broken into five sections and on one level it can be seen as an intergenerational narrative: in part 1 we see David Sparsholt as a young man briefly at Oxford during World War II – muscular and beautiful, lusted after by clandestine watchers in the black-out. He has a girl-friend and gets into trouble for having her in his room out of hours. In Part 2, David has a teenage son, a bit dyslexic, but good at drawing and just becoming aware of his gay desires. By Part 3 (1970s) the son, Jonathan, is a young art restorer finding out about the delights of living in London and, with his divine looks, asked by a lesbian couple to father their child. By Part 4, Jonathan, an established portrait artist, has a daughter, and some of this part is narrated from her point of view. Jonathan hasn’t married – he has fathered the lesbians’ child and clearly loves Lucy whom he sees regularly. In Part 5, Lucy is old enough to be married – a huge society wedding quite at odds with Jonathan’s style, and father/ grandfather David dies at the age of 89.

The most compelling feature of this novel, however, is not finding out how the different generations turned out; the reader has to piece together exactly what happened in the 1960s – the much publicised Sparsholt Affair. In Part 1 we observe that David Sparsholt, although keen to marry his girl-friend, is not averse to the amorous advances of a man. By the 1960s he is well respected, a decorated airman and businessman. We gradually learn that the ‘affair’ involved gay sex and a parliamentarian. It occurred at the time just before gay sex was decriminalised. After conviction and damning publicity, David Sparsholt left his wife, who was Jonathan’s mother (the girl-friend of Oxford days) and married his secretary. But all this we must piece together; the affair lurks in the background just as it does for Jonathan, who is aware that people befriend him in the hope that they may hear more about his father’s involvement in the celebrated scandal. Even when he is a successful artist, Jonathan cannot escape being David Sparsholt’s son. But the reader learns all of this gradually, third hand. The narrative of the novel is conveyed from various points of view:  firstly a memoir piece written by Freddie, a contemporary of David Sparsholt at Oxford. Much of the narrative is from the point of view of Jonathan, and Jonathan and his gay artistic world is also observed from the point of view of daughter, Lucy. David Sparsholt is first observed through a window at Oxford, exercising his enticingly beautiful body. And that is really how we continue to see him: the rather distant, but very proper war hero,  a father who drives a Jensen, who on one of the rare occasions he meets up with his adult son, dines at his club. When, at the end, Jonathan views his dead father’s body, he, the observant artist, can’t remember the colour of his father’s eyes.


Oxford 1940s

What carried me through this book – effortlessly – was not the intriguing plot, but Hollinghurst’s vivid descriptions of people and places. The section below is from Part 1, a darkened Oxford in wartime blackout. Evert and Peter are looking up at David Sparsholt’s window:

He (Evert who would later have an affair with Sparsholt) and Peter (an artist who would sketch Sparsholt in the nude, not showing his head, so he couldn’t be identified) stood staring up at the room opposite. Their backs were expressive, Peter smaller, hair thick and temperamental, in the patched tweed jacket which always gave off dim chemical odours of the studio; Evert neat and hesitant, a strictly raised boy in an unusually good suit who seemed to gaze at pleasure as at the far bank of a river. p.6

Part 2, a scene at the beach. Adolescent Johnny aware he is gay:

The young man was changing, Johnny a second too late as he pulled up his pants with a snap and stood wringing the wet from the tiny green trunks. Johnny could be so absorbed in looking he forgot he was visible, and being looked at. ‘All right?’ said the man – a clench of shame for Johnny, but it was just pleasantness, unsuspecting. The dog ran over, and Johnny scratched its head with sudden rough energy and relief. p. 142

From Part 4, Lucy (Jonathan’s daughter, the product of a lesbian relationship) is the only child at a wake:

A little later Lucy went and stood near Grandpa George, who was in a corner of the crowded room with a tall white-haired man – she knew he hated people barging in when he was talking. After  a minute, though, the older man nodded pleasantly at her and said, ‘And this must be your granddaughter, George?’

He looked down to check. ‘Yes … yes, it is’ – with a momentary smile at her as if confirming he hadn’t lost his car keys. p.355

In Part 5, 60 year-old Jonathan goes to a gay nightclub – something he hasn’t done for many years, but his partner died a few months ago. The casual abandon of the music and dancing provides a precursor to Jonathan’s new world of freedom: his father dies that night :

Now a dark-haired young man was pressed against him, saying something in his ear, and they moved hand in hand into the dancing crowd, the young man stepping back to protect a space for them and make a cute little act of dancing with Johnny – he thought for a moment he was teasing him. He was lean and large-eyed, with a long nose, and a smile which only faded as he lost himself in his trance, then came back as he looked at Johnny, and hugged up close with him as they danced. p. 425








Eddie Ayres 1

I am a great fan of Eddie Ayres. This started when I read Cadence, written as Emma Ayres, about cycling from England to Hong Kong on Vita, her trusty bicycle taking a violin with her so that she could communicate through music to people in what most of us would regard as incredibly dangerous countries for solo female travel. (Reviewed on this blog in 2016.)

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Emma was unhappy in a female body and in Danger Music, written as ‘Eddie’, he describes his desperate need to be male. By the end of the book the first part of the transition process has been undertaken. But most of the book is about a time, still as ‘Emma’, working as a teacher in a music academy in Kabul, describing poignantly how it is impossible to gain a real understanding of a foreign culture. Music had been banned in Kabul until recently and many conservatives still prohibited it. One student had to hide from her family the fact that she was learning music and attending a music academy. Eddie describes how for the Afghani people it is impossible to come to agreement both in terms of music education and politically.

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Emma loves these children and shares their musical triumphs – which seem incredible, given the environment in which they are working; bombs thudding in the distance, and sometimes near at hand. It must take tremendous courage to work there when you’re never quite sure what is going on.

Eddie Ayres 2

The book also shows, however, how music is a means of communicating and a means of giving these young people a purpose and a sense of achievement. The music played is both Afghani and Western. It is a beautiful and honest account of that time in Eddie’s life.

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I have now just heard Eddie speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week. I think everyone in the audience was stunned by his honesty and openness. From the age of 14 to 49 he had identified as a lesbian and one reason for remaining in a female body was a belief that there should be a broad spectrum of what it is to be female. As Emma, he went to Afghanistan to work partly to isolate himself from day to day life. Even at that stage he was deeply depressed: ‘I needed to be in a place where I could think about myself’, he said. Ultimately it became clear that he needed to be in a man’s body. As he spoke, his love for the children he taught was evident – he describes how well they played, how hard they worked and thrives on their various successes. It is good to hear that he now wants to turn to doing similar work with children in outback Australia, many of whom also lack music education.

Oliver Sacks


From the time I read Awakenings – many years ago – I have been an admirer of Oliver Sacks. The two main qualities for me are his lucidity – his ability to express complex scientific ideas in an accessible way – a way that is a pleasure for a non-scientist to read. And the second quality is his vast interest and knowledge about all things; his breadth of knowledge of literature, his fascination with chemistry, botany, history of science and much more – he could even play the piano! And underpinning all of this, the boy who loved solitary work with his chemistry set, the meticulous collector of facts, turned out also to be fascinated in people: his formidable scientific knowledge and observation combines with an ability to enter into the skin of people as he writes case studies that come to life.


I haven’t read all of Sacks’s books, but I intend to read more. Around the same time as I read Awakenings, his account of the lives of people who suffered from encephalitis lethargica and his ‘awakening’ them with the drug L-DOPA, I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a particular case study of a man who suffered from visual agnosia. The story was later adapted to an opera – Sacks didn’t make fun of the condition, he laughed along with his patients, but not at them.


Recently I read The River of Consciousness, a book of essays that were dictated by Sacks only weeks before his death in 2015. The essays range from Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, to the Fallibility of Memory. I came away from reading this book with a different view of Freud – the young neuro-anatomist who studied fish. I gained a new awareness of the importance of looking back to scientific studies of a hundred or so years ago, where significant observations of phenomena such as continental drift and Tourette’s syndrome were made, and then almost forgotten. When there is a new scientific discovery we tend to eschew the ‘out-of-date’ thinking in that area, and in doing so we lose important clues and observations. The ‘river of consciousness’ examines how we think; our memories are formed by transforming and organising, which often includes misappropriation – Sacks describes instances where he did this, when he believed he had seen something, yet what he was remembering was his brother’s vivid description. Our remembering is essentially a creative process, and the ‘river of consciousness’ is not continuous, but a series of discrete experiences, more like shots in a film.


Having become thoroughly engrossed in The River of Consciousness, I was delighted to discover that Sacks’s autobiography was also published in 2015. The title, On the Move: a Life, refers to Sacks’s enjoyment of riding his motor bike – various bikes during his life – long distances. When he was living in Los Angeles he would sometimes ride 500 miles to the Grand Canyon and another 500 miles back in a weekend. From seeing the film of Awakenings, I had gained an impression that Sacks was a bit of a loner. I knew he was gay, and he would have grown up in London around the same time as Alan Turin, whose sexual orientation was so horrifically condemned in the 1950s, leading to his suicide. It was reassuring to read of Sacks’s youthful love of motorbikes and to know that he did have albeit infrequent liaisons in Amsterdam and later in the US. Ultimately, when he was in his seventies, he met his partner Billy. For most of his life he was a loner, but a loner with rewarding and absorbing friendships. There was also a loving closeness to his family of brothers and physician parents.



We learn about his inspirations, his disappointments, his achievements as he wrote his many books and scientific papers. The whole book is written in a chatty, easy-to-read style although it quite often tackles details of his extensive interests in neuro-psychology – visual perception, how we think, how we perceive ourselves.


As I read these books I wished that I could have met this renaissance man of the 21st Century. I marvelled at his legacy and thought, how sad it is that there will be no more from him.



Brian Aldiss: When the Feast is Finished

Earlier this year I reviewed Brian Aldiss’s book, Forgotten Life. He died in August.

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When the Feast is Finished is Brian’s moving account of the death of his wife, Margaret, from Pancreatic cancer, in 1997.

When the feast is finished

‘When the feast is finished’ comes from a poem, unknown to me, by Ernest Dowson, expressing finality. What I found more touching, was Aldiss’s quotation in this book of the poem by William Blake:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

What a poignant description of a beautiful, loved person being taken by cancer.

The book is based on journals, kept by both Brian and Margaret, over the all-too-short weeks of her illness. The reader becomes a part of their daily lives as they eat their chicken pies or Marmite sandwiches and Brian learns how to do the shopping and work the washing machine. This is what dying of cancer is: watching other people’s reactions, holding out what he knows is irrational – but desperately hoping – even for a science fiction writing atheist – that a miracle will occur and Margaret will be spared. At first Brian hopes that Margaret will be cured, then the wish is diminished – just that she will continue to be there, even in her damaged semi-bedridden state. And a part of this irrationality is that no expense will be spared to make the final days of the dying one as bearable as possible – a lift is installed although it will be used only a few times. Margaret has a week in palliative care; she deteriorates terribly.  At first, when he leaves, Brian taps on her window with his car keys and she responds by turning her light on and off, but within days the time comes when he knows there is no point tapping the window. Nevertheless, he knows that Margaret would like to go home – so, for her last few hours, she is brought home by ambulance, with special nurses.

As I read the book, at first I thought that there was too much; much more than the reader needs. Were all these details included as a therapeutic exercise for Brian? No.  Having been through a somewhat similar experience myself, I know that you feel that by recording every detail you are clinging on to a part of that person. The daily routine: new doors being installed, a new car (Margaret’s gift to Brian), an inventory of Margaret’s jewellery, its value, and to whom it is to be bequeathed, takes us right there – there to the practical side to dying. We are with them.

Margaret’s last moments are transcribed from Brian’s journal:

‘“One more breath, my darling!” I begged. She delivered it. Her breaths became few and slight. Far between. I held her gently. She ceased to breathe. It was about 3.55.’

when the feast is finished 4.gif


Brian Aldiss: Forgotten Life

The English writer, Brian Aldiss, died on 19th August, aged 92. I met him back in 1978 when he came to Melbourne as guest of honour at a science fiction convention. I am not a science fiction reader, and at that stage I hadn’t read any of his work. My new partner and I had just moved into a magnificent flat on Marine Parade St Kilda – big enough for table tennis and a large party of science fiction fans. I was overwhelmed and intrigued by science fiction fandom but quite unable to talk about science fiction. Aldiss, then in his early fifties, conversed politely and reassuringly in his gentle English voice. I remember he called me ‘Mrs Foyster’ and I was too in awe to correct him, although even later, when married, I didn’t use my husband’s surname.

Brian Aldiss 1

Recently I discovered Forgotten Life (1988), one of Aldiss’s mainstream stories. Although definitely fiction, it is a kind of memoir with his life melded into the character of Clem Winter. Clem’s wife Sheila (aka Green Mouth) writes science fiction. Clem lives a quiet and usually comfortable life as an Oxford academic – but his brother dies, leaving a whole lot of diaries and notebooks that on the one hand are a duty for Clem to sort through but also tell him and perhaps help him to understand the life of his almost estranged brother, 12 years older than him. Through this process Clem comes to understand his own life. Joseph, and to a lesser extent Clem, lived with the consequences of believing that their mother never loved them. Her first child was a baby girl who didn’t live and Clem felt that his being a boy was a huge disappointment. Joseph had been sent away to his grandmother’s at the time of Clem’s birth, and this had a profound effect. Aldiss spent much of his childhood away in boarding school.

Brian Aldiss Forgotten Life

Aldiss was just old enough to participate in the end of World War II, and Clem’s brother Joseph, as a very young soldier, was sent off to Sumatra, far away from his family. Here he had his first serious love affair with a married Chinese woman. Clem unravels his brother’s life through reading his letters and diaries. Joseph never settled down with a woman – we are led to believe (Clem is conveniently an analyst) that this was because he instinctively feared that if he got too close to a woman she would abandon him as he felt his mother had done.

Brian Aldiss SF quote

As Green Mouth, Clem’s wife is highly popular and successful. Early in the book there are scenes at a convention in America – parties, dress-ups, adoring fans. Near the end of the story, when Clem and Sheila’s marriage looks pretty hopeless, we find out that Green Mouth was the name of her favourite doll and Sheila had been literarily abandoned as a child – not just sent away to boarding school. Clem catches Sheila in bed with her editor, and she leaves, it seems for good, with her suitcase. But, within hours of storming out, she is back and the story ends with the sound of her key turning in the door of their Oxford home. Beautifully paced and crafted.

Barry Lee Thompson

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